Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone



Cultural Appropriation and La Japonaise

Nils-Hennes Stear (University of Michigan)

Last July, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (BMFA) put on an exhibition featuring Claude Monet’s La Japonaise (1875), a painting of Camille, Monet’s wife, dressed in a resplendent red kimono. For some of that period, the museum also invited visitors to “dress up” in a replica of the depicted kimono beside the painting, to take selfies, and share them with the museum. Protestors accused the BMFA of Orientalism and cultural appropriation, after which the museum cancelled the dress-up activity in favour of one in which visitors could interact with the garment in other ways. More details about the case are here and here.

I am sympathetic to the protests, at least insofar as I think the museum should not have exhibited the pieces as they did. Nor should the museum have failed to engage properly with the criticisms of the protestors. It doesn’t follow from this, of course, that the issue is a simple one in which all reasons obviously favour one course of action. Nor need it follow that the museum ought to have cancelled any portion of the event. And plausibly, inviting participants to try on the kimono under different circumstances could be okay, on balance.

A central problem of the event seems to have been one that could have been quite easily remedied: the apparently cavalier way its curators invited visitors to engage with the work and the activity without any serious commentary about the ethically troubling aspects of Japonisme—the fascination with perceived aspects of Japanese culture that flourished in late nineteenth century Europe—and its entanglement with US and European imperial history. For instance, the exhibit might have foregrounded the fact that Japonisme was in large part a consequence of the Kanagawa Treaties of the 1850s, which Japan signed quite literally at gunpoint, and which opened Japan up to US and later European trade, among other stipulations. (The MFA website describes this aggression limply as “the opening of Japan’s ports to Western trade in 1854”.) And the way that works in the tradition often trade in stereotyped and exotified imagery (I invite readers to search for promotional images for Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado, for instance), coupled with the often appalling consequences of the US’s fraught relationship with both Japan and its own Asian American inhabitants, merit comment. I will shortly offer a reason for thinking that embellishing the exhibition in this way would have made it ethically better.

The accusation that the event condoned or exemplified cultural appropriation raises a difficult question: what exactly is cultural appropriation and when does it constitute a harm? This issue will be my focus here.

To appropriate something is, at its core, to take ownership of it. Cultural appropriation involves, at minimum, taking ownership (however partial) over some part of a culture (however concrete or abstract). Appropriation can be understood as an ethically neutral term by itself, albeit one that also picks out unethical instances. Ethical worries of the familiar sort invoked by social justice activists typically begin when the appropriating is by a culturally hegemonic group from a disadvantaged group’s culture (Rowell 1995).

James Young, in one of the few sustained discussions of cultural appropriation in analytic philosophy,1 identifies three kinds of ways acts of cultural appropriation can, though need not always, be morally offensive. The first concerns one kind of what Young calls “subject appropriation”, in which members of hegemonic cultures misrepresent members of non-hegemonic cultures. Many works of the Japonisme tradition, and the paintings and writings of 19th Century painter Paul Kane are examples. The second concerns consent, where members of hegemonic cultures adopt some part of a non-hegemonic culture without securing the permission (however exactly this is understood) they ought to have secured. Clothing multinational Urban Outfitter’s 2011 “Navajo” fashion line featuring imitation “native” patterns and other paraphernalia is one example. The third concerns an hegemonic culture’s misuse of parts of a non-hegemonic culture that are sacred or private. The satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo’s depictions of the Prophet Muhammad is one example.

Which of these kinds of appropriation applies to the BMFA event, if any? It’s not clear whether any of the types of offensiveness fit very neatly. There is some sense in which one might take the event to be offensive in the first way, as misrepresenting Japanese culture by making it seem, as many of Monet’s contemporaries did, exotic and other. Additionally, a significant part of the protestor’s concerns, one familiar from criticisms of other appropriative practices, seems to be the inappropriately playful or shallow engagement with parts of a non-hegemonic culture; some protestors’ equation of taking selfies in the robe with practicing “Yellowface” suggests something like this. This criticism might be understood as a friendly extension to Young’s third kind of offensiveness. The offending act in this case is not the misuse of a sacred part of a culture, but of a serious part.

I want to suggest a fourth source of offensiveness concerning the benefits and value of culturally appropriative acts—an issue Young touches on—and which arguably applies to the event. A number of factors make particular instances of cultural appropriation morally better or worse and the offense it causes more or less reasonable, Young thinks. Among the factors Young invokes is social value:

Sometimes, I expect, an artwork will have a degree of societal value that can counterbalance the offense felt by members of a culture whose has been appropriated. Perhaps the clearest instances of subject appropriation with a high degree of social value are provided by some of Shakespeare’s plays. Shakespeare was clearly engaged in subject appropriation when he represented Jews, Moors, and others. Equally clearly, the works are profoundly offensive. Even today many Jews regard The Merchant of Venice and its treatment of Shylock as profoundly offensive. Nevertheless, the plays that resulted from Shakespeare’s cultural appropriation have a degree of social value that far outweighs their offensiveness. Shakespeare, I would say, did not act wrongly in penning The Merchant of Venice or Othello. […] There is no reason why someone who appropriates aboriginal content could not produce a work whose value more than outweighed any offense it caused. When this is the case, we have a reason to think that the act of cultural appropriation is not wrong. (Young, 139)

While Young identifies something important here, he neglects a consideration that any appeal to social value must recognize to be adequate, and which is happily consistent with everything Young says. The consideration concerns to whom the social benefits of appropriated work flows. The problem is not always that a privileged individual, say, recklessly uses parts of an underprivileged culture. Sometimes, the problem is the way the hegemonic culture profits from this reckless use.

At last year’s Race & Aesthetics conference in Leeds, Leona Nichole Black offered the germ of this idea during the Q&A session for James McGuiggan’s talk on Brett Bailey’s Exhibit B. Bailey, a South African artist racialized as White, created an interactive artwork depicting a fictional human zoo populated by actors racialized as Black. On McGuiggan’s tentative and qualified defence of the work, Exhibit B’s aim was to invite a racially loaded objectifying gaze in the viewer in order to get her to realize her susceptibility to executing such a gaze. This was meant to be achieved in particular by meeting eyes with the otherwise objectified actors, thereby being jolted into recognizing their humanity. The work, much like the BMFA event, provoked protests about its ethical character. Black’s worry, with which I agree, was that part of what is troubling about Exhibit B was its use of Black bodies in the service of White edification. The idea is that persons racialized as Black were unlikely to benefit from Bailey’s first-personal lesson in the seductiveness of a racialized gaze, whether directly as appreciators, or as social beneficiaries causally further downstream. And while the actors performing the piece under Bailey’s direction were exclusively racialized as Black, the appreciators were predominantly racialized as White. The work thus assumed an exploitative dynamic, however unintentional.

The BMFA’s event might be thought to exhibit a similar dynamic in its using Japanese cultural objects to celebrate a morally fraught Western artistic tradition, while also catering to the tastes and preconceptions of a predominantly White, US audience. Moreover, it seems to have done so, not with the end of White (or, perhaps, US) edification, but with that of White (US) amusement. A more serious and careful effort to place Japonisme and Monet’s work in its ethical and political context could have helped remedy this potentially exploitative dimension to the exhibition by turning it into an opportunity to educate or remind everyone of imperialism’s impacts—including on cherished artists such as Monet—rather than merely flaunting its fruits.

I should close with a few important caveats to my discussion. First, as a German-Brit racialized as White, I am in some respects ill-placed to delineate exactly the moral and political contours of this or similar cases. This is just an obvious point that follows from a minimal commitment to some form of standpoint epistemology. Second, I have not interacted with the exhibition in person; my information about it is second-hand. Third, there are a number of important details that I can’t possibly do justice to here; the BMFA’s impressive and educative collection of Asian art, the extent to which the exhibition is best understood as an affront to Asian-Americans rather than Japanese nationals per se, and whether appropriation is the best concept through which to understand what might be wrong with the event, are just three such important issues. Finally, accusations of cultural appropriation and its potential harms are subject to so many intersecting considerations, that they are difficult to navigate with confidence. This goes for the BMFA event discussed here. I encourage readers to read more about the exhibition to inform their own conclusions.

Rowell, John. “The Politics of Cultural Appropriation.” The Journal of Value Inquiry, 1995: 137-142.
Young, James O. Cultural Appropriation and the Arts. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2010.
Young, James O. “Profound Offense and Cultural Appropriation.” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 2005: 135-146.

1. At least, that I can find; Young’s arguments have since been elaborated and supplemented in Young (2010).


  1. This is an interesting contrast to cultural inundation which is best described as flooding a culture with aspects of another culture. The best example is the widespread distribution of American films and pop culture in Europe and Asia since WWII.


  2. Thanks. Both phenomena (can) connect in interesting ways to broader issues of imperialism.


  3. I did not know of James Young work, but I find it very surprising that his classification does not include what I take to be the most insidious form of cultural appropriation: where the hegemonic culture appropriates part of a non-hegemonic culture with the purpose of silencing and/or erasing such culture. I am thinking here of the recent Turkish appropriation of Kurdish music or the Mexican appropriation of indigenous cultural artefacts. In a certain sense, this could fall under type (2) or (3) appropriation, but it seems to be such an important and singular phenomenon that it deserves it own classification.

    Now regarding La Japonaise, I still do not see why you are hesitant to say that it is appropriation of kind (1). Is it because you think that classifying it that way leaves out much of what makes it controversial?


  4. Thanks for the comment, Axel. I agree that erasure seems like a significant feature of some instances of cultural appropriation. What might Young say? On damaging a culture by distorting it (subject appropriation), he writes:

    “Whether this harm was caused by ignorance, malice, or a combination of the two, it was certainly wrong. Notice, however, that the production of works that harmfully distort a culture is not wrong qua act of cultural appropriation” (p. 108)

    I think he'd say something similar about silencing/erasure, insofar as these are taken to be downstream effects of appropriation. Of course, one might think appropriation is constitutive of silencing/erasure. But Young doesn't, to my memory, discuss it in these terms. He does discuss the harm of assimilation in the book, which comes close to the issue of erasure – but again, he appears to understand it in causal rather than constitutive terms. He writes that the argument that identifies assimilation as a harm of cultural appropriation “must be taken seriously since it correctly identifies the single most important threat to minority cultures: destruction by assimilation.” (p. 119) But he is skeptical of the empriical premise on which accusations of assimilative cultural appropriation depend – i.e. the that appropriating minority cultures leads to their assimilation. Interestingly, he is less skeptical that they have led to other harms such as discrimination against members of the widely misrepresented cultures. But regarding both causal relations, he is careful to stress that it isn't totally clear whether they obtain.

    Whether Young is right about any of this is a further issue.

    On the last bit of your comment, I'm not exactly hesitant to describe the exhibition of 'La Japonaise' as appropriative in the first way Young identifies (as misrepresenting a culture). It's rather that it dosn't fit very cleanly in this category (as compared with, for instance, depictions of Native Americans in Westerns, or Germans at beer festivals). One way to put this is as you have – that what is tricky and controversial about the exhibition goes beyond this kind of appropriation.


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